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The video language between small and big screen (and back)
Video art and cinema, a bit like men and monkeys, have a common origin. Or better to say, the first comes from a rib of the second. That video art is in fact the daughter of experimental cinema, art-film, is indubitable. But, as the word itself says — almost a patronymic — video art has on its small screen — TV or PC — its own mother’s womb, which determines its original imprinting.
Beyond the differences linked to different factors, the element characterizing the species — its peculiar specificity — is the use of the video medium, while experimental cinema (which under the aspect of visual language is often very similar) basically it continues to operate on film. Or at least, so it was until the advent of digital revolutionized the entire universe of moving-image. To the point that today even the cinema definitely goes towards digital, from distribution to production.
Although the official birth certificate of video art was placed in the 1960s, with Nam June Paik’s famous exhibition, the idea of ​​using television as a tool for artistic production began to develop in the 1950s; already in 1952 Lucio Fontana published the “Spatial manifesto for television”, on the prospects unfolded by TV as a means for art.
This umbilical cord between video art and video devices, never completely cut off, has in some way marked the nature of its visual language, conditioned by the development of technological means that can be used to reproduce the video. From the cathode tube of old TV to plasma screens, but also — and in opposite directions — from video-projectors to smartphones, from very large to very small.
Always, video artists have talked with the medium, in their works. Just think of the production of Nam June Paik.
And so today we have artists who work directly using their phone to make videos, and at the same time others, I think of Pipilotti Rist, for example, who work on huge video-immersive projections — almost a cinerama.
Although born in some way in opposition to the cinema, as well as its experimental progenitor, video art has always maintained a connection with the cinema itself. On the one hand, its condition of autonomy is based on several aspects, the diversity of formats (video and not film) and distribution (exhibitions and not cinemas, supports for domestic viewing), character (scarce or absent narrativity, very variable duration, abstract character …); for another, questioning the artistic object more radically than other forms of art do, accentuating the dematerialization of the artistic object, that is, affirming an art based on time rather than on space, reaffirms this brotherhood in the fourth dimension.
Moreover, not only has this bond of blood always existed, but it has been renewed and strengthened in new and multiple cultural bonds. It is not at all secondary that, in an artistic movement like Fluxus, fundamental in the history of video art, video artists and directors coexisted, such as Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostel, George Maciunas, George Landow, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow and Yoko Hono.
A mix that is also found in much more recent times, if you look for example the path of three artists-filmmakers from the similar path, poised between video experimentation and feature film, such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and John Maybury.
This long history of diversity and contiguity is also a history of contamination, of mutual nourishment. Videoart has long — and widely — plundered the cinema, using fragments for detournement and found footage. As well as, in turn, the cinema, through the work of some directors, has more or less consciously assimilated some aesthetic research carried out by video art. Typical example, the division of the screen into multiple windows.
In more recent times, there seems to be a new convergence between these two segments of moving-image, especially by artists who bend towards the cinematographic model, when they do not fully embrace it, reaching the mainstream cinema.
A particular approach is adopted, for example, by the Masbedo, who are able to involve both high-profile actors and — and consequently … — very important productions in their productions. Or, to talk about the cinema with a capital ‘c’, like the British Steven McQueen, video artist and director of award-winning films, like Shame, Hunger and 12 Years a Slave. McQueen, who as an artist received the Turner Prize, then won the Oscar with 12 Years a Slave.
There are also those who spoke about these three films, of a somatic trilogy, open with dejection (the real shit of artist that in Hunger Bobby Sands smeared on the walls of the cell), followed by the sperm (the result of Brandon’s sexual addiction in Shame), to end with blood (which flows from the back of little Patsey, in 12 Years to Slave). True or presumed to be the thesis of the trilogy, is there not yet video art in this idea?
If videoart goes to the cinema, in turn the cinema goes — to some extent — approaching the dimension of video art. The Netflix era is radically redirecting film production (and distribution). What in recent years have made the series, produced and distributed on pay TV networks, with Netflix takes a leap forward, directly attacking the production of films. Feature films produced by high-level, high-budget productions that increasingly attract actors and directors coming from classic cinema, and who are working on fully digital products, that is not only digital, but designed for distribution on digital devices, increasingly small (smartphone, phonepad, tablet).
So if today, to paraphrase what McLuhan said, we could say that “the medium is already language”, this long dance between video art and cinema, it seems that in one way or another it must reach a — more or less passionate — embrace.

[Enrico Tomaselli / 2020-02-01]

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